The Princesses May Have Fallen but their Myths Have Not

Recently Dina Goldstein’s Fallen Princesses project popped up in my internet browsing, probably as a result of one of the many posts questioning and critiquing this series on some of my favorite feminists blogs. I’ve been wanting to write this post for days but have found myself unable to – simply because, like many others, I’m not exactly sure how I feel about these images and what I want to say. These images are hard to comment on, probably because there are so many of them, and each one conveys a radically different message (a message that is highly open to the viewer’s determination, no less), but I’m going to try my best.

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Let’s start with the one I found most offensive: Not So Little Red Riding Hood. At first (and second, and third) glance I found this picture to be horribly fatphobic, especially after the author explained her vision of this image in the comments as a, “personal comment on today’s fast food society.” As a personal comment on today’s ‘fast food society’ this image irks me at first in the sense that it perpetuates the myth that weight is inescapably tied to the quantity and quality of the food one eats (ignoring, of course, the wide range of genetic factors that go into one’s weight.) On a more base level the inclusion of this picture into a gallery of “Fallen Fairytales” attaches a value-judgment to being fat – to be fat is to have fallen, in some way, from the standards that one is meant to adhere to. To be quite honest conflating fat with bad is just as harmful of the old fairytale adage that tells us the women who are thin and beautiful are always good and moral, because along with that belief comes the inescapable conclusion that it’s opposite, fat and ugly, are evil or bad. Far from an attempt to undo fairytale stereotypes, Dina’s artwork seems to confirm them by adopting fairy-tale values to comment on a more modern situation.

To contrast Alix Olson offers an excellent body positive re-imagining of Little Red Ridinghood (and many other fairytales) in her poem Eve’s Mouth as she writes:

“Little Red Riding Hood was walking down the trail,

she was carrying the goodies,

thought “They’ll go stale”.

So, she ate ‘em all up and that was that.

Then, she threw them all up, fear of getting fat.

‘Cause even Red Riding Hood reads magazines,

the ones prescribing diets for pre-teens.”

I’m instantly more drawn to this fairytale re-imagining than the ones done by Dina Goldstien because the values that are expressed by Alix Olson fall more in line with my own – I’m not worried about the “fast food epidemic” so much as I am worried about the epidemic of eating disorders, depression, and unhealthy eating that seems prevalent in young girls who are infected by this thin culture (that holds the same values as our fairytales: thin and beautiful is good and fat and ugly is bad, and in addition fat can never be beautiful.) The funny thing is, ultimately, I think we’re worried about the same thing: people living unhealthy lifestyles due to cultural messages. Unfortunately fat-shaming is never going to be the best way to get people to make healthy choices (and as we learned yesterday fat =/= unhealthy all the time.)

Other images by Dina Goldstien seem to follow the same formula as I try to draw meaning from them: the princesses are depicted in various situations unbefitting of their status as embodiments of all that is good and beautiful – unfortunately these pictures have a (possibly unintentional) side effect in the sense that they make these situations (like being fat) seem to be something bad. In some cases, like the image of Beauty (without her Beast) getting excessive amounts of plastic surgery, I can agree with the message – not even a princess is pretty enough to fit into our perfection-crazed society.

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Other messages I disagree with strongly, like the image of Snow White as an unhappy housewife – giving off the impression that women who choose to have children are generally miserable and unable to pursue fulfilling lives outside of the home. As one commenter said, “HAHA – this is great since every American girl grows up thinking she’s a princess, but in reality BAMM she’s a jaded snow white with several brats and a Ex-Prince Charming Joe Six-pack” (spelling and grammar left untouched for posterity’s sake.) While I can appreciate the irony of Snow White as a mother and “housewife” (as this image seems to imply) I think that categorizing mother as something “fallen” is problematic in the same way it is to categorize “fat” as something inherently negative.

Among the messages I strongly like and dislike there are some image that still have me scratching my head. The image of Rapunzle with cancer (the irony, of course, being that her long golden locks are now gone) bothers me in a sense that I can’t quite put a finger on. It may be one of the most poignant images of the collection,a true “reality check” but at the same time it seems disrespectful in a way as the situation almost seems to trivialize cancer through the pun of Rapunzel and her lost hair.

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The final image that really struck me is that of Disney’s Jasmine dressed in pink camo and standing in the middle of a desert battle-scene. Not getting into the racial implications or sub-par photoshopping, something about this photo bugs me. On one hand I actually appreciate the image of a Princess with real physical strength – on the other hand I do not appreciate the fact that this strength comes along with the knowledge that I am looking at a fallen princess, she’s not supposed to have this power, there is something wrong with it.

In the end it almost seems trivial to be critiquing these images as such, but something in me (and a few other feminist bloggers I’ve seen) just can’t seem to let this go – and its understandable. Most fairytales really do a disservice to little girls by instilling negative values like beauty (or lack of beauty) is an indicator of character and every princess ultimately needs a prince to be happy (even if she saves herself – like Mulan – she still ends up paired off.) As adults, it would make sense for us to be seeking validation for the lives we’ve lead that may not have nessecarily included those values (in other words, proof that the values are wrong) in the same form –fairytales. I think this is why its just so painfully disappointing when a re-imagining like this one, that holds so much potential, sends such painful mixed messages.

I understand the artist’s desire to show that real life is nothing at all like Fairytales, it continues on after the happy-ending and often does not look anything like you envisioned it would. But at the end of the day, value judgments aside, I simply wish these images were a little less depressing, and a little more empowering. Sort of like Alix Olson’s work – sure, she often leaves me feeling angry with a society that is often unfair but she also leaves me hopeful, feeling as if I have the power to use my anger and make a difference.

5 thoughts on “The Princesses May Have Fallen but their Myths Have Not

  1. So first off I love your blog and more often than not agree with the stuff you say but I beg to differ on this.

    I didn’t see the project as examples of failure, but rather as the “fallen princesses” in the sense that they didn’t get their traditional disney-like happy ending. As in not everything they dreamed off came true, so.. with snow white it’s not like being a mother is in any way a failure but her happy ending was not supposed to be ending up with three kids and a husband who just sits on the couch and watches tv. I’m guessing her dream was the loving and caring husband who also happens to be a wonderful parent to all of their kids. So it’s more about the failure of her marriage rather than her being a mother.

    When it comes to little red riding hood, it doesn’t just show a fat girl walking around. It shows a fat girl with lots of fat food (unhealthy food), and she’s eating it too, so it’s just saying that she’s made some pretty unhealthy choices about her diet and she’s gotten fat, and since the food she’s eating is pretty bad I’m guessing she can’t be all that healthy. Granted it doesn’t talk about all the reasons why someone could be overweight, but some people are overweight because of a bad diet and that’s all the picture is saying. I’m having a hard time seeing how it equals fat to fallen. I just see it equals a bad diet of unhealthy food in great quantities as a failure.

    I didn’t really care about the other pictures, except for the rapunzle with cancer, I’m just puzzled about how in the world the photographer got to that conclusion. What could possibly make you think that she got cancer? that’s just a random ending.

  2. You make a lot of sense – I honestly may have been looking a little too hard to find something to attribute my gut feelins of uneasiness with this series to but, still, something doesn’t sit right here with me.

    I do see how they are fallen in the sense that they are without a happily ever after, but I suppose it still bothers me to see real life situations (like being a mother) somehow considered less-than or something that is undesirable (thus, not happily ever after.) I feel like the term “fallen” comes with a value judgment that can’t be taken away from it.

    Upon further reflection I think my problem with this series is the same as the problem with my post – its just not a very sophisticated analysis of anything. The artist’s message seems to be all over the place, the quality of work is incredibly varied, and they just don’t really inspire much… even though the idea itself has so much potential – as shown by Alix Olson and the many others who have reimagined fairytales in a clever, creative, and positive way. Take Big Red, for example, what was the artist’s message? What does this say about our culture? I see a cheerful looking fat woman and I’m told that she is in some way fallen, yet out of all the princesses depicted she looks the happiest… what am I supposed to think about that? Honestly, this image just bothers me because it really fails to convey much of any message – good or bad – without the implications of the series title.

    All in all I think that if the title of this series was something like “After the Happily Ever After” I would take MUCH less issue with it, because no value judgment is implied. I also think I am giving this waaay to much thought now!

    So, thanks for commenting – I really appreciate your perspective, and your critique of my thought process. (And I’m with you on the Rapunzel thing, where did that come from? I guess she just wanted to create a visual pun with her losing her hair, which was her defining characteristic?) I’d love to hear more of what you think!

  3. It’s my first comment on this blog, so just let me say that I really enjoy reading it and find your open-mindedness very unique and reassuring.

    Anyway, I’ve been thinking of the whole project exactly as “After the Happily Ever After.” Each picture tells me a story of what went horribly wrong after I closed the book. I consider each photo a wake-up call aimed at girls/women who grew up thinking “I’ll be happy in the end if I act just like the princesses.” Which unfortunately usually means “smile, be polite, pretty and quiet – your prince will find you and just marrying him will make you happy for the rest of your life.” And that is a very flawed concept, I think.

    The stories I see:

    Cinderella’s prince died shortly after they married and as he didn’t have time to write his last will, she ended penniless and with nobody to take care of. (For she had always lived just for other people, never really cared about her own well-being and never learned to love and respect herself.) Desperate, she turned to alcohol.

    Jasmine thought that her husband would protect her against anything, but then the war came, he got killed and she found out that she’d been so sheltered she didn’t even know there WAS a war going on. (And which ammo to use with which gun, in case of emergency.)

    Little Red Riding Hood thought her grandma was never going to die. When she did, Little Red lost all motivation – she stopped going on walks in the woods, she started bingeing (there was more food left, because she didn’t have to bring grandma anything.) She got fatter and fatter, until one day she met the wolf, who laughed at her for being overweight. This triggered an eating disorder and such loss of self-confidence (she always believed what other people said) that she hid herself in her little house for the rest of her life.

    (…)

    I admit the Rapunzel gag seems a little shallow, but overall – all the depicted situations make my imagination run wild (“how did that happen?” “how COULD that happen?”) and that’s exactly what art should do.
    I think the whole collection points out the dangers that stem from Cinderella complex.

    Uh… I hope I’m making some sense here. Please excuse all cases of shitty grammar, I’m not a native speaker.

  4. Wow! I love your back stories – I think if they images had somehow managed to convey these stories, or had come with these stories alongside them, I would have loved them for the nuanced ways in which they explore the consequences of relying on a prince for your happily ever after, rather than disliking them for being insensitive caricatures of real, serious, issues. Thanks for sharing this!

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